In early November, a drone video emerged online claiming to have destroyed a Russian Pole-21 electronic warfare system on the eastern front near Donetsk. Ukraine is racing to catch up with Russia in electronic warfare, as Kyiv is rushing to destroy Moscow’s technology on the battlefield.
Electronic warfare, or EW, involves weapons or tactics using the electromagnetic spectrum and is employed by both militaries in this conflict, predominantly through electronic jammers that throw off GPS-guided targeting systems, causing rockets to miss their targets. After almost six months of Ukraine’s slow and grinding counteroffensive, it is clear that Russia has built up formidable electronic defenses, and Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines are having to adapt quickly.
PavloPetrychenko, the drone commander with Ukraine’s 59th Motorized Brigade, says successfully destroying these systems is critical if Ukraine is to liberate more territory. He told CNN that Russia actively uses electronic warfare as one element of the defense against Ukraine, as the US-provided HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) and Excalibur 155 (an extended-range artillery projectile) are guided by satellites.
Ukraine’s NATO-provided armor is weak
Russia’s electronic warfare has turned Ukraine’s Western-provided arsenal of guided weapons, such as precision-guided missiles, and taught multiple launch rocket systems (HIMARS) into a vulnerability. These weapons rely on GPS to hit targets, making them more vulnerable to electronic warfare than unguided weapons.
The Kremlin’s growing electronic arsenal includes the Pole-21 system, designed to jam GPS signals to protect Russian assets from incoming drones or missiles. In September, state news agency TASS reported that Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin told a government meeting that production of crucial types of military equipment, including EW, had doubled in the first eight months of the year.
Experts and Ukrainian officials also say that Russia has fully integrated electronic warfare with its troops. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief, said in a recent statement that Russia is now actively producing considerable amounts of “Trench Electronic Warfare.” This results in equipment losses. American-made Excalibur shells have had their capability significantly decreased due to the influence of enemy electronic warfare. Pentagon spokesman Maj. Charlie Dietz said that while the impact of Russian jamming has been observed in specific United States-provided systems, it has not rendered these systems ineffective. The department has taken steps to reduce vulnerabilities, undertaking substantial efforts to re-engineer and update these systems.
The transition from drone army to electronic army is being rapidly accelerated
Ukraine has significantly increased domestic drone production this year, transforming the battlefield. The Ukrainian minister of digital transformation, MykhailoFedorov, now aims to replicate this success with electronic warfare (EW), as drones are often victims of EW. Fedorov warns against oversaturating the battlefield and supports designing EW systems that can be controlled remotely, targeting only enemy equipment.
Russia has faced challenges in EW efforts due to “electronic fratricide,” accidentally targeting one’s forces. The most important task for Ukraine is to acquire the technology to program its drones to target enemy EW equipment on a large scale. This would be a game-changer for drone operators like Petrychenko, who admit they are hunting Russian equipment in a cat-and-mouse game.
The best hope for Ukraine is that viral footage of their drone strike will go viral, helping them identify Russian antennas on the battlefield. This is changing the game beyond Ukraine, as it shows what modern warfare looks like today, where electronic warfare capabilities and tactics are integrated into conventional force operations.
The Pentagon spokesman, Dietz, said the US is actively evaluating and adapting its strategies in electronic warfare and sees it as a fundamental aspect of contemporary and future military engagements. Fedorov says Ukraine is investing directly in electronic warfare and incentivizing domestic production while also acknowledging the need for help from Western allies in terms of equipment and expertise.